This Day In History: June 18

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In a major reversal of federal policy toward Native Americans, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Indian Reorganization Act into law on June 18, 1934. Also known as the IRA, the Indian New Deal and the Wheeler-Howard Act, the act granted a new degree of autonomy to Native Americans in the United States, giving them greater control over their lands and allowing them to form legally recognized tribal governments.

In the early 1900s, federal policy toward Native Americans had promoted assimilation, pressuring tribes to leave reservations, move to cities and give up their traditional ways of life. After World War I, in gratitude toward Native Americans who had served in the military, Congress commissioned a study of conditions on Indian reservations across the U.S. The resulting report detailed the impoverished and unhealthy conditions in which many American Indians lived, finding a “vicious circle” in which economic opportunities were rare.

Elected in 1932 on a mandate to overhaul the Depression-ravaged American economy, FDR appointed John Collier, one of the founders of the American Indian Defense Association, to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933. A staunch opponent of assimilation, Collier was the driving force behind the IRA. Importantly, the IRA reversed the allotment policy, which was aimed at breaking up communal lands into a patchwork of privately-owned plots. The IRA made it easier for tribes to hold communal lands and purchase land back, although the effects of allotment can still be seen on reservations today. 

The IRA also established a framework for tribes to draw up and ratify their own constitutions, which were recognized by the federal government. Many of these constitutions now serve as the law of the land in Indian territory. The IRA also directed badly-needed funds to services like healthcare and education on Indian reservations. Though many now believe that the IRA failed to improve economic conditions for Native Americans, it laid the groundwork for the current model of tribal sovereignty and paved the way for the full rollback of federal assimilation policies.